This morning, we sat down to watch another very long Disney film with our son. Like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, this is a movie that has been recut and edited several times in multiple releases. We watched the current cut, which is pretty long at 129 minutes. There are longer and shorter versions in circulation as well. It really did test Daniel a little bit, but he was very brave. I was afraid, given his history, that the scene where the villagers and fishermen of Passamaquoddy try to capture the dragon, whose name is Elliot, would frighten him, but he did just fine.
Pete’s Dragon is a collaboration between live-action director Don Chaffey, who was behind all sorts of interesting stuff, from Jason and the Argonauts to some late-in-the-run episodes of The Avengers, and Don Bluth, who had just finished work on Disney’s fantastic The Rescuers. That’s actually one of my favorite Disney films of all time, by the way, and we’ll definitely watch it for the blog some time in the future. The main human stars of the film are Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and newcomer Sean Marshall, and they’re opposed by the villains played by Carry On star Jim Dale and Red Buttons. Jim Backus and Shelley Winters also appear in smaller roles.
But the real star of the movie is Elliot, who is just terrific. I’m aware of the remake that will be released later this summer, and as much as I pretend to judge films on their own merits, that movie will sink or swim based on how well they do all the tics and grumblings and oddball little grunts that Charlie Callas gave the original Elliot. All things being equal, it’s actually a pretty strange little vocal performance, but I just adore it.
Daniel was completely charmed by the movie, as hoped. He loved all the slapstick comedy and Elliot’s funny facial gestures, and most of the songs – good gravy, there are a lot of ’em – and while he’s been on better behavior and still wanted to roll around on the sofa a lot, he did mostly very well. His favorite part was when Shelley Winters and her hillbilly gang get dumped in tar. “I love it when people get covered in tar!” he tells us.
I was surprised to learn that this film isn’t better remembered. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is a lowly 48% at present, which is a real stunner. Many writers agree that it runs too long, but here’s the thing: I think it’s at least a song and a half too long, but nobody’s going to concur what should be cut. I’d be tempted to edit away the hillbillies’ first number, but watch with a kid and see how well that plays with the child. The very first shot of the movie is Pete somehow floating into a wooded clearing, instantly establishing the magical premise, and that first musical number starts inside of two minutes. I don’t know whether Don Chaffey was actually given a document entitled “How to Immediately Hook a Five Year-Old,” but it sure feels like it.
I’d also cut “Candle on the Water,” regardless of it being nominated for an Academy Award. Like “Cheer Up Charlie” in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it stops the movie dead in its tracks. It’s a nice little song, I suppose – it wouldn’t be out of place between Steely Dan and Michael McDonald on the soft rock radio in your doctor’s waiting room – but quite fast-forwardable in a picture this long.
So while it’s certainly flawed, it’s nevertheless a very good film. Jim Dale is a really entertaining villain, and Helen Reddy is a great emotional anchor. Sean Marshall isn’t great, but the list of most aggravating kid stars has many dozens of names before you reach him, and Elliot, all pudge and funny expression and tic-tic-tic burbles, would have been watchable and impossibly charming regardless of who was in it.
And no, those weren’t tears streaming down my face when Elliot tells Pete goodbye. You stop that slander right now, you hear?